The Woman On The Shore

by Al Purdy
113 pages,
ISBN: 0771071271

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Image And Archetype
by Don Coles

SOMEWHERE FAR BENEATH all the shelves and libraries and booksellers` windows that shelter or display Al Purdys many volumes of poetry is one Ur-poem, which its Multifarious representatives up here on the earth`s surface ignore at their peril. In this poem (and because it is Ur I cannot describe it in detail, it is in this regard an archetype) a creature, who may but need not be human, wanders along what may he a coast or a beach, although it could simply he a year of its early life now being revisited, and the light, once dazzling and filled with irreverent energy, is darkening, and there is A pervasive sense that the probable final wisdom to come out of this landscape will have to do with homelessness, with few words or none, and with a strong memory of love. If the above is taken to mean that I think Purdy`s poetry is essentially elegiac, then that`s not far off. As far as I`m concerned, it`s also fine. All kinds of wise folk have told us that each of us has only one story to tell, that for each of us the carpet`s got only one pattern; Purdy`s is this one. It happens to he the pattern I also respond to, different ways of trying to talk about it, no doubt, but a very similar triggering mechanism. So these are poems I like a very great deal. Surprising, in a way. I suppose that the poet I`ve learned most from over the past 15 years is Philip Larkin, and Larkin and Purdy have surely never before looked at each other inside the same sentence. Larkin with his economy, his little intensely crafted lyrics, his 2.7 poems per year -- and Purdy for whom the poems seem to come riveting forth endlessly and effortlessly, by comparison often prosaically, all sorts of improvable lines, frequent loose beginnings, and even once in a while, though these are not at all frequent, loose endings. All of that is, I think, true. Which only proves, to and on me, that there is room in the world for different kinds of voices -- not just "room," but need. Purdy does overwrite, there are failed poems here ("Vertical versus Horizontal" -- some first-rate stuff, too, but several passages where the poet seems to be trying Out images to see which will work best and then just quits and leaves them all in; and the much too long "A Handle for Nothingness"), but I believe this goes with his gift, all that profligate flow; if he tried to dam it the loss Could he grievous. And I haven`t the faintest wish that this poet be other than he is. High time to be more specific about that, about what he is. Theres a poem I`m certainly remembering in my introductory paragraph, which not just coincidentally is this books title poem. It begins with the poet noticing the lake "trying to decide about itself/whether it is better to he ice or water," and then, in Closer focus, noticing the "little two-inch tubular crystals ... phantoms in the water." The poet is trying to "observe the exact instant/water stops being water"; "I have manoeuvred myself near them/my face close to the crystal hexagrams..." Well, perhaps you like these lines and part-lines I`m showing You, `and you are thinking, yes, this is an accomplished catching of detail, the near-freezing Like, and perhaps you are also about to credit the poet with a true rendering of a specific northern scene ... and yet you have not, I Must tell you, been told the quarter of it. Because this is a poem about time itself, and planetary space, and it is also a love poem, and it is also about that most perilous of all these mentioned abstractions, Eternity; and yet all this is managed with (I think) a near- immaculate touch, with an evident strong conviction that a poet has to deal with these matters, because these matters are in our (or, same thing, this poet`s) deepest mind-centres, and the whole thing works because of this poet`s ability to move these great spatial and temporal sonorities into the believable, touchable, glimpsable images of a finite human life. There is also a splendid love lyric called "Papyrus," which tells how the poet has "grown old/with a thousand/or so photographs/of you circulating/in my blood," and how these "are pumped/to far places/of the body/returning and returning"; there is an elegant Herrickesque rhyming love poem called "Questions"; there is a restrained and deeply moving version of the Ur-poem called "Vera Cruz Hotel"; there is another of these, "Dog and Hummingbird," in which the innocuously presented and all but unnoticeably accumulating images of the poem fuse in the last three lines in a way that lifts the soul, yes, lifts the soul; and there is yet another Ur-example called "The Others," which culminates in a series of richly imagined tableaux offered one after the other, prodigally (one Would have been enough to end the poem on, but three, as we have here, turn out to be much, much better, each one adds colour and dimension and spaciousness to the receiving mind), with enormous craft, out of a unique gift. More could be said. To anyone who feels as I do about a Much earlier Purdy poem called "The Horseman of Agawa" (it`s Ur, of course), a poem centring on a rock-painting above Lake Superior which the poet decides is about a lost hunter calling out for his longdead friends, and which `is perhaps also about the poet and his wife who may also be lost and calling Out, it will be enough to say that this new collection will remind you, often, of that kind and that level of poetry

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